"I did it" - An analysis of a disturbing case and a shocking confession

Robert Bebout

By: Sean Ray

The city of Pittsburgh was shaken when the body of 7-year-old Michael Jackson was discovered by Saw Mill Run Creek. The corpse showed signs that the boy been raped and later strangled to death.  

The police began the usual procedure, asking people around the West End if they had seen anything. One of those asked was 15-year-old Robert Bebout. He responded with probably the last thing anyone expected to hear. 

“I did it.” 

That was 36 years ago. Bebout is now one of many juvenile lifers facing a resentencing hearing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Montgomery v. Louisiana. He has a chance to receive a reduced sentence for his charge of murder and his two charges of sodomy.  

But Bebout may be an unlikely candidate for sympathy. Unlike many others being resentenced, he did not act out of a need for money or drugs, nor was he pressured by any gang into the action. He admitted to his crime up front, rather than try to declare himself not guilty.  

While the only fault anyone could find in his upbringing was an absent father, Bebout may have been a ticking time bomb. He had been to juvenile court five times before on counts of theft, assault and problems at school. Clearly there was something wrong, but no one imagined the crime he would inevitably commit. 

In a series of resentencing hearings characterized by sad stories of ruined childhoods and birth into unfortunate circumstances, Bebout forces the legal system to ask a tough question: At what point does the severity of the crime outweigh the age at which it was committed? 

“When [a juvenile] does something as bad as [Bebout] did, it’s hard for us to get our heads around the fact that, essentially, he’s just that evil,” Duquesne University Law Professor Wes Oliver said. “That maybe he should never see the light of day because what he’s done is so horrible.” 

In the coming months, the Pennsylvania law system is going to be reviewing the cases of countless juvenile lifers. Many of them have languished in the prison system for decades. Some have spent that time peacefully, displaying signs of good behavior. Some appear to be rehabilitated after serving their time and ready to reenter society, not a danger to anyone. 

But behind that good behavior and time spent, there is still an original sin to be considered. There is a victim, someone they hurt. Judges will need to review the circumstances of these crimes, and many may walk free as a result. But many may also stay in prison. Some have committed crimes just too awful, too damaging or have no extraneous circumstance to explain such behavior that they cannot be allowed to see the light of day again.

 

Bebout’s crime is the double rape and murder of a child half his age at the time. He has served three decades in prison. Pennsylvania will need to ask, is that enough? Can he be forgiven? 

In other countries – like many of those in Scandanavia where the criminal justice system strives for rehabilitation – the answer might well be yes. In Pennsylvania, with its history of harsh punishment for juveniles, forgiveness seems less likely.